Sunday, November 20, 2011

Marcella Hazan's Pear Cake

The days are melting away quickly. I can see them go from the window near my desk, the light drip drip dripping down the skyline. This begins at 5, at 4, now at 3:30 I have to flip on my lamp. I love the approach of winter. Suddenly the air smells of sweet, sudden cold, of braised beef, of apple cider spiked with rum. But I miss the light. Especially now that I’m working in an office, bound to a desk. At least I sit by a window, where I can watch the light fade against the pattering, frozen rain.

This week is Thanksgiving. And then it’s my birthday. I turn 29. The punctuation mark to my twenties. The end of a beginning. The beginning of an end. I don’t think I’ll miss this decade. It’s been exciting and full. But I’m tired. I’d like to sink into my life in a way that doesn’t constantly hurt. Hurt? No. I suppose I like the movement. I like the excitement and the growth. I guess what I want is someone to invent a new brand of makeup, one that will prevent the handful of people who come to hear me talk about my book from asking if I’m fourteen. You’re not? Oh, well then are you married? No? You should eat more. You’re skin and bones.

Writing a book—a memoir—has been an empowering experience. A vulnerable one, too. Two weeks ago I was in Detroit for a book fair, and then New York City to speak at the PublicLibrary. Last week I was in St. Louis for another book fair, and I did an event with the New England Culinary Guild. I love talking about my book, about the sense of smell. These events fill me with energy, make me thankful to be alive. They also make me think about my life in a very direct manner. Why are you not a chef? I’m often asked. The questions that follow range from small (What did you eat for breakfast?) to large (How did you fall in love?). There are questions about my loss of scent (Why did you recover?), many of them coming from those with something at stake (How can I recover, too?). We often circle around to the questions I likewise ask myself: Will you write another book? What will it be about? The answers are there, but not always as cut and dry as I’d like. Isn’t that always the case?

I’ve been behind on the blog. I know and I’m sorry. I meant to be better. I was doing so well for a while. But we all know how life gets in the way. How work gets in the way. How sometimes maintaining sanity and health alongside a crazy schedule can be impossible. How sometimes I wonder how I’m maintaining anything at all.

But here is something great. A pear cake. From Marcella Hazan.

I found this recipe in The Essential New York Times Cookbook. I made the cake a number of weeks ago for the first time. I brought it to a party where it really didn’t belong. Standing next to elaborate chocolate mousse tarts and finely wrought cupcakes garnished in candied orange peel, this little cake paled, shrinking against the wall like that flower we’re always talking about, the one I embodied when I was in high school. But, hey, this cake is good. Really good. It is that cut and dry.

Marcella’s pear cake is simple. The batter consists of eggs, whole milk, sugar, flour, and a pinch of salt. After peeling and slicing 2 pounds of pears, you add them right to the mix, and pour the batter into a pan. Before it goes in the oven, you dot the top with some butter, which coats and sizzles and helps to provide a nice browned crust. Because the ingredients are so simple, the flavor of this cake really comes from the pears. As it should.

Marcella’s Pear Cake

This cake is a lovely dessert, the punctuation mark to a simple meal. It’s also great for breakfast, a big wedge sliced in the lingering darkness of an almost-winter morning. I’d eat it pretty much any time, though.

½ cup breadcrumbs, fine and dry
2 large eggs
¼ cup whole milk
1 cup sugar
Pinch salt
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 pounds Bosc pears, ripe
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Place a rack on the upper third of the oven, and then preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a 9-inch cake pan, add the bread crumbs to the pan and swirl it to distribute the crumbs evenly. Give it a little shake and turn upside down to release the extra loose crumbs.

In a large bowl, beat together the eggs and milk. Add the sugar and salt. Beat until well combined. Add the flour and mix well.

Peel the pears, and then slice them in half. Remove and discard the seeds. Cut the pear halves into thin slices, and then add them to the bowl. Mix well. (The batter will be quite thick.)

Now, pour the batter into the pan. Make sure it’s evenly spread. Dot the surface of the batter with the butter. Bake for 45 minutes. The top will be golden brown. Cool slightly and then remove from the pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Butternut Squash Salad with Spices, Lime, and Green Chile

The week after I returned from London, I received a package that followed me home. My lovely UK editor had sent it, the best kind of parcel, one filled with books.

The books included a memoir by a woman who learned to live on a farm, a “how to” book on drinking wine by Victoria Moore and a cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi.

I had heard of Ottolenghi before. He's a chef in London with four restaurants named after himself and another called Nopi. He writes a column in the Guardian, which began about vegetarian cookery and now expands much wider. The cookbook my editor sent me was his first cookbook, a UK-version cookbook, charming with its Britishisms: aubergine not eggplant, grams not cups. I cooked a number of dishes—most recently a honeyed sweet potato and chickpea stew, which reminded me that simple is great and healthy can taste far better than good. I’ve been enamored of Ottolenghi ever since.

The other day, I went on a cookbook-buying binge. My schedule has been so packed the last few weeks that I haven’t had much time to cook. And since cooking is one of my favorite ways to unwind, to relax, to push the cobwebs of anxiety out of my brain, I’ve been feeling like my insides are tied up in knots. Even if I don’t have time to cook, however, I could never give up those few minutes before bed when I read. And I’ve been reading lots of cookbooks. I love it when I can get lost in a cookbook like I would in a novel. It inspires the best kind of dreams.

Anyway. On this cookbook-buying binge, I purchased Ottolenghi’s newest vegetarian tome: Plenty. It’s a beautiful book with a pillow-press cover and recipes organized by vegetable. (Last night I dreamt about eggplant.)

And last weekend Becca came to visit. She’s one of my best friends but lives in San Francisco, so seeing each other in person is a rare delight. Her first night here I cooked a little vegetarian feast from Plenty. It included a salad made with roasted butternut squash, sweet spices, spicy peppers, limes, cilantro, and a yogurt-tahini sauce. It sounds like a mouthful, but it was pretty much perfect. I’ve been thinking about this salad so much ever since that I made it again Friday night for some other lovely friends, who agreed.   

To make this salad, you take a butternut squash, peel it (or not; I kind of like the crunchy roasted skin), slice it, and roast it with a brush of oil mixed with cardamom and allspice. When you serve it at room temperature, the squash is sprinkled with crunchy slivers of a spicy green pepper, the herby wash of cilantro, tart pieces of lime, and a nutty, smooth sauce. I don’t know what it is about this salad, but it works.

Butternut Squash Salad with Spices, Lime, and Green Chile
Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty

2 limes
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 big butternut squash
1 tablespoon cardamom
1 teaspoon allspice
½ cup Greek yogurt
2 ½ teaspoons tahini
1 tablespoon lime juice (or more to taste)
1 green chile (I used jalapeno), stripped of seeds and pith, sliced thin
2/3 cup cilantro leaves, picked off the stalk

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.  

For the limes: trim off the tops and bottoms of the limes with a paring knife. Now with the limes standing stable on a cutting board, use your knife to cut down the sides, slicing off the skin and the white pith. Quarter the naked limes, and then cut into very thin slices. Place these slices in a bowl, add a 1-tablespoon drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt.

For the butternut squash: Cut the squash in half lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Now, cut the squash into slices – about ½ inch thick. Lay them out on a baking sheet (Ottolenghi suggests on a piece of parchment paper).

Mix together the cardamom and allspice in a small bowl. Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil, and stir. Brush this spiced oil over the squash. Season the squash with salt. Roast for about 15 minutes, or until tender, and then let cool. (Here is where you can peel off the skin… or not. I’ve done it both ways, and love the slight crunch when it is left on.)

For the sauce: Whisk together the yogurt, tahini, lime juice, and two tablespoons of water. Season to taste with salt. (The sauce will be thick, but you want to be able to drizzle it over the squash, so add more lime juice or water to taste to thin it out if necessary.)

To serve: Arrange the squash on a serving platter. Drizzle with the yogurt-tahini sauce. Spoon the lime slices and their juice evenly over top. Scatter the chile slices. And then the cilantro. Enjoy.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

New Orleans

Matt and I flew down to New Orleans—one of my favorite cities in the world, his hometown—a few weeks ago. My mother and her boyfriend, Charley, joined us.

Stepping outside that first morning, I inhaled the thick, warm air. It smelled like earth, like dew, like the tropics. We weren’t in Boston anymore.

We spent the weekend exploring. The French Quarter. The Marigny. Uptown, downtown, the Garden District. On Sunday, we took a trip out to some plantations, their grounds lined with ancient Live Oaks. We had a lovely meal at Sylvain. And a fantastic one at NOLA. There was a fried green tomato po’boy that kind of blew me away. A Sazerac at the Columns Hotel. My love of beignets will never falter; especially if I continue to eat them alongside the thick, bitter coffee served at the Café du Monde.

One afternoon a street musician—who played the clarinet like it was a living thing, like she didn’t just want to, but she needed to—stopped us in our tracks. When she was joined by a little boy playing a recorder, I melted into my shoes.

I finished the long weekend with an interview at the local NPR affiliate, and a reading at the GardenDistrict Book Shop. Talking about smell in New Orleans is especially fun, because, well, the smells of New Orleans are especially intense. From the rich, spicy aroma of shrimp gumbo to the rather unpleasant olfactory assault of Bourbon Street on a Saturday night. From the sweet scent of powdered sugar melting atop a hot beignet to the briny breeze coming off the Mississippi River. It’s a city filled with life.

(While in the city, my mom and Charley stayed at The McKendrick-Breaux House. It’s on Magazine Street, in the quite-funky Lower Garden District. The owner, Brett, is fantastic. He collects old yearbooks, and makes a mean pancake. Need a place to stay? We highly recommend.)

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pasta alla Norma

I’m still here.

For much of this summer I’ve been running on adrenaline, speeding along from event to event, reading to discussion to book club, and always to day job, day job, day job.

London threw me for a loop, though. The jet lag on top of the running on top of the events on top of the day job… and then a wedding in Maine and a baby-naming in Cambridge and a trip to Philadelphia… all within the course of one week? Stick a fork in me.

But of course I’m not done.

Today I'm looking forward to an event at Stir, a demonstration kitchen and cookbook shop run by Barbara Lynch here in Boston. It’s an open house, from 12 – 2:30pm today, and if you’re in the area, you should definitely come, because I’d love to meet you. And then on the 10th I’ll be in New Orleans, one of my favorite cities on earth, to talk even more smell at the Garden District Book Shop. And on the 13th, I’ll be at the Peabody Institute Library in Danvers, MA. For more, see the events page on my website.

Oh, and here? I will write more, better, soon. I promise.

I’ve been trying to figure out what to write. I could write about the wedding I attended in Maine. It was on an island near Brunswick. We watched the bride and groom exchange vows as the sun set over the lagoon. Or I could write about the joy of meeting the new baby daughter of a good friend in Cambridge. Or I could rewind even further and write about London, and that lovely yet short trip during which I played the tourist, ate some excellent Lebanese food, and spoke a lot on the BBC. Now that I think of it, one moment there really stands out.

Late one afternoon, I walked alone from my publisher’s office in Notting Hill back to my hotel in South Kensington. Despite the warnings I’d received before my trip, the weather in London was nice. The sun shone bright on streets of red brick buildings. As I walked, I listened to the sounds of people speaking with accents only familiar to me from movies, to buses rumbling their double deckerness over the wrong-way roads. I had a few hours to kill and let my mind wander. Amid the errant musings on clotted cream and Marmite, I thought about how far I was from home, how strange it felt to be there, how wonderful and exhausting and insane. I was in a different country, an unfamiliar city. But there I was, meeting people who were moved by the same books and the same words, people who could all be transported by the same smells. I know this sounds trite. Or silly. Or sad. But in one moment it struck me how small the world really is. And how incredibly, unforgivingly large.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with a recipe. Because those have been severely lacking here in the last few months. (This sad fact is something I plan to change.)

Friday night I arrived home from work and grocery shopping pretty late. I didn’t start cooking until 8:30pm. But I was determined to use a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated, because I read Cook’s Illustrated recipes all day, and they often stick to the meaty part of my brain. I had been doing research on the effects of salt on vegetables and had become fixated on this recipe for Pasta alla Norma, a chunky eggplant tomato-based sauce that takes to rigatoni like a hug.

I sipped some whiskey (because I love a good whiskey) as I took out my knife. After the application of salt and a stint in the microwave, I watched the diced eggplant release its liquid. Browned in the pan, and then removed, the spongy vegetable turned out soft and flavorful...not at all waterlogged. The sauce came together with minced garlic and anchovies (which are salty and meaty and not fishy at all), and crushed tomatoes from a can. First came basil, then pasta, then cheese. Matt and I ate while watching an old episode of The Sopranos. It was everything I hoped it would be.

Pasta alla Norma
Adapted from Cook’sIllustrated (also known as: my place of work)

3 small eggplants (or 1 large), cut into ½ inch pieces
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 anchovy fillets, minced
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
1 pound pasta (ziti, rigatoni, penne, etc)
6 generous tablespoons basil, chopped
1 cup shredded cheese (they recommend ricotta salata; I used a combination of pecorino romano an asiago cheese)

First, place the diced eggplant in a medium-sized bowl and toss with 1 teaspoon of salt. Then, line a microwave-safe plate with coffee filters. (The filters will absorb more of the eggplant’s excessive moisture than, say, a paper towel). Place the eggplant on the plate in a single layer, and microwave on high power for about 10 minutes. The eggplant should be dry and kind of shrively. Let cool a bit.

Now put the eggplant back in the bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Heat another tablespoon of oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the eggplant and cook until nicely browned and tender. This should take about 10 minutes. Be sure not to stir too frequently, or the eggplant will break apart. Once cooked, remove the eggplant from the skillet and set aside.

Add another tablespoon of oil to the skillet along with the garlic, anchovies, and pepper flakes. Keep the pan off the heat for 30 seconds or so, using the residual heat to cook these delicate ingredients very lightly, not allowing them to burn. Then set the skillet back over the burner and add the tomatoes. Bring to a simmer and let cook for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a big pot of water to boil. Add salt (2 tablespoons or so), and cook pasta until al dente. Reserve a half-cup of pasta water before draining the pasta and then placing the noodles a big serving bowl.

Add the eggplant back to the skillet filled with sauce, and stir gently. Let simmer for 3 minutes. Now, add the basil. Season to taste with salt. Add the sauce to the pasta, and stir to coat. Drizzle a glug of olive oil over the top if you like. Serve, sprinkled with a healthy handful of cheese.

Friday, September 16, 2011


(More soon...)

Friday, September 09, 2011


I walked to work this morning, a long stroll through the lifting fog. It’s been a hazy week of rain. The moment I left my apartment and shut the door behind me, I could smell burnt toast and musty rug. Outside, I smelled the lingering rain on the sidewalk, a whiff of the Dove conditioner in my hair. As I walked, there was a hint of earth and dead, early-autumn leaves. A hot metal twang to the subway car rumbling by. I could smell the flowery perfume of a woman on her way to work, the coffee from a café with an open door, and the familiar wet scent of a dog who had just rolled around in the grass. I fly to London tomorrow. I wonder what smells that will bring.